Disappointed with Intimacy
My first major purchase was a submarine. I saw it on the back of a cereal box that boasted of its prowess as a "real" diving submarine. Through the power of baking soda, this little vessel promised to make me master of the seas—or at least master of the bathtub. I had to have it, even though it cost me several weeks' allowance. The day it came in the mail, I loaded the special compartment at the bottom of the sub with baking soda, and launched it.
The sub went straight to the bottom. It did not dive. It sank. Bubbles rose to the surface as the baking soda began to dissolve, and then suddenly it bobbed back up to the surface. After a while, it sank again. There was a kind of novelty in this, but overall it was less than I had hoped for. A wave of disappointment washed over me, and I realized that I had wasted my savings on a cheap plastic toy.
When I grew older, I put such childish concerns behind me. But disappointment would not be put off so easily. Instead, it insinuated itself into the more complex toys of adulthood, like my vocation and my most cherished relationships. My work, even when it is ministry, often seems like toil. People I love do not always love me back. Sometimes I take others for granted or treat them unkindly. I set out to make something of myself and glorify God in the process. Yet after making every effort to "expect great things from God and attempt great things for God," my accomplishments fail to follow the trajectory I expected.
I am disappointed but not surprised. We live in an age of unreasonable expectations. Ours is a world where promises are cheaply made and easily broken—where hyperbole is the lingua franca. Advertisers tell us that a different shampoo will make us more attractive to the opposite sex. Alcohol will lubricate our relationships. Purchasing the right car will be a gateway to adventure. These pitchmen promise us far more than enhanced lives. They are peddling ultimate fulfillment.
"The problem with advertising isn't that it creates artificial longings and needs, but that it exploits our very real and human desires," media critic Jean Kilbourne observes. "We are not stupid: We know that buying a certain brand of toilet tissue … won't bring us one inch closer to that goal. But we are surrounded by advertising that yokes our needs with products and promises us that things will deliver what in fact they never can." Kilbourne notes that ads also have a tendency to promote narcissism while portraying our lives as dull and ordinary. They trade on natural desires but in a way that heightens our dissatisfaction and creates unrealistic expectations.
We can blame Madison Avenue for raising false hopes, but we cannot escape bearing some of the responsibility. Advertising creates culture, but it also provides a mirror. Optimism has always been a feature of American thinking, sometimes to an unhealthy degree. Unrealistic expectations compel thousands of contestants who cannot sing to try out for American Idol every season and be genuinely surprised when they do not make the cut. Misguided enthusiasm has prompted a generation of well-meaning parents and teachers to tell children that they can accomplish anything as long as they believe in themselves.
The church is not immune from this way of thinking. American popular theology combines the innate optimism of humanism with the work ethic of Pelagianism, resulting in a toxic brew of narcissistic spirituality at once pragmatic and insipidly positive. This is Christianity without scars, and with all the sharp edges of our experience smoothed over. Nostalgia and a cheap sentimentalism replace Jonathan Edwards's religious affections, clouding over the hard facts of what it means to follow Jesus.